Muni, the transit agency that slowly trundles people and urine around San Francisco, is in a bad way.
Its current daily ridership stands at 183,000 — down from 710,000 in pre-pandemic 2019 which, itself, was down from 728,000 in 2016.
But, just like a rider on the 14-Mission realizing hey, that’s not Mountain Dew, this gets worse.
Between 2013 and 2019, Muni’s vehicular operating expenses grew from $663 million to $856 million — a 29 percent spike. Its overall expenses grew in that time from $785 million to $1.1 billion (41 percent). At the same time, fare revenue dropped from $220 million to $197 million — a 10.5 percent decrease.
Then came the pandemic — and, in all likelihood, years of people with the luxury to do so shunning public transit, despite what Dr. Fauci et al. would tell you about low transmissibility on buses and trains. Then came a Covid-induced revenue free-fall — coupled, jarringly, with renewed calls to make Muni free.
The problem — or at least a problem, and a big one — is that this city’s political class has for aeons treated Muni not so much as a transit agency but as San Francisco’s Giving Tree. Rather than balance their own budgets, other city departments have raided Muni to the tune of scores of millions of dollars a year via “work orders.” And politicians’ ostensibly well-meaning calls to make Muni free for larger and larger swaths of the population — or everyone — almost never include permanent funding. Or any funding at all.
If Muni restores full pre-pandemic service — of course that’s a big if — it’s looking at a $155 million yearly structural deficit by 2022. Making Muni free would further nix perhaps $200 million in fare money.
So, yes, Muni is in a bad way.
And, by the way, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Central Subway will finally debut. And this will be a logistical and financial disaster, just like every responsible transit expert, journalist and (out-of-office) politician has said it would be, for decades. It’ll be a cuckoo in the nest, devouring and diverting Muni resources and money, spawning creative new manners of transit meltdowns to bedevil put-upon riders, and, perhaps worst of all, blocking future growth.
This is San Francisco’s transit future. And its future writ large: Like so many vestiges of city life — schooling, housing — transit reflects the increasing inequities of the nation’s most inequitable city. As Muni grows less and less tolerable, more and more riders with the means and options to abandon it do so — leading to Muni growing even less tolerable, more riders abandoning it, and an accelerated route to inviability.
This is the Muni Death Spiral. Our transit agency and others have flirted with its event horizon for decades. But, now, it’s an appallingly real possibility, due to a confluence of factors — including a pandemic, a recession, and VC-subsidized parasitic transit companies being coddled by city leaders and enabled to enshrine their own oppressive labor laws by state voters.
It sounds bad because it is bad. But the transformation of Muni into a billion-dollar service catering to only those without the means to opt out needn’t be our future. This is not inevitable.
But this city needs to have frank and honest discussions about what it expects out of its transit service, and how it’s going to get paid for. This needs to happen — and soon.
To do otherwise is to fail to plan. And when you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.
In 2018, Muni leadership planned to fail.
It neglected to warn riders — or even the mayor — that it was going to backfill service lost during the closing of the Twin Peaks Tunnel by secretively yanking buses off its most crowded lines.
This led to predictable chaos and misery. But — also predictably — riders didn’t think Is Muni sabotaging itself and doing it in secret? Rather, their recriminations tended to be of the Muni suuuuucks! variety.
And this may be the most unforgivable sin of all.
When you consider how difficult it is to do things in San Francisco, and how Muni’s routes retrace redundant, century-old competing private trolley lines, and how many terrible management decisions have been made — you know, Muni usually works pretty decently. Riders are often left griping about trips that, throughout much of urban America, would have been inconceivable to begin with.
But its reputation is in shambles because riders better remember the terrible experiences than the mundane ones. Muni management, it seems, took note of that. And they used Muni’s hyperbolically overblown bad rep as a cover to clandestinely kneecap the service and make things as abysmal as everybody already said they were.
You know what? That sounds like bad karma. And here we are.
In fact, it’s a hell of a lot easier to notice Muni’s failures than its successes. As far back as the crafting of the Transit Effectiveness Project some 15 years ago, Muni officials knew the service — already the slowest in North America — would grow about 1 percent slower every year without proactive investment.
That means in order to just maintain the less-than-stellar status quo, Muni must constantly invest more resources — more vehicles, more drivers, more runs.
Increased congestion on city streets means it takes longer in the early 21st century to get across town than it did in the days streetcars ran to Colma to drop the deceased off at their well and truly final stop. And that was before Uber and Lyft: The ascent of these San Francisco-based companies has super-pumped congestion, cannibalized Muni ridership, and reduced the parking meter money and ticket fees used to subsidize core transit service.
In recent years, concerted efforts to increase speed and reliability on specific Muni lines has led to tangible success: Amazingly, more people ride when their ride is faster and more reliable. What a revelation.
But the pandemic has thrown a wrench in all of that. And now our discussions about how to approach the entire Muni system are of a different nature altogether.
Or at least they should be.
So, cable cars.
Everybody loves cable cars. People travel from around the world to ride on them (and, currently, merely look at them). They dress inappropriately, creating a market for fleece sweaters, and buy snow globes featuring cable cars traversing a hill in a city where it hasn’t snowed in two generations. And everyone is happy.
Except Muni. Everyone loves cable cars, and, surely, they’re making money for someone. But the one entity left holding the bag is Muni — and, in 2019, the cable cars ran at a $46 million operating deficit.
That’s a loss of $126,000 a day and $882,000 a week. And that’d be justifiable if the cable cars operated as a transit service rather than a tourist attraction — but this hasn’t been the case for decades. And yet that money comes out of the same pot used to fund core transit.
And that’s ridiculous. And inequitable. That’s what I wrote in 2010, and again in 2013. And, since that last column, the cable cars’ operating expenditures went up by 40 percent, while fare revenue dropped. It would be madness to stick Muni — and only Muni — with this bill, even if we weren’t in the midst of a crippling pandemic that threatens the viability of Muni writ large.
Well, we are. But, guess what? The cable cars will come back. Cable car service is, uniquely, mandated in the city charter. It warrants mentioning that bus service and streetcar service and light-rail service is not. Surely, a San Francisco without cable cars is missing a piece of its soul. But a San Francisco without a functioning transit system has lost major organs and appendages.
Assuming we feel cable cars are worth having — and to imply otherwise feels a bit like laughing and cheering at the end of Old Yeller — how do we want to pay for that?
Sticking it on Muni doesn’t work this time. Muni can’t be the Giving Tree anymore.
And, assuming we feel Muni is worth having — how do we pay for that? And what do we want Muni to be?
These are difficult questions in the best of times. These are not the best of times. If the pandemic changes work life forever — if the FiDi remains a ghost town — Muni’s entire modus operandi and raison d’être will have to be remade.
Muni is facing existential pressure, but pandemic-related uncertainty renders it impossible to responsibly predict and plan for all but the very near future. Ongoing deliberations in Washington, D.C. may make or break the future of mass-transit. As may state- and county-level decisions on whether transit operators can be vaccinated (In San Francisco, this was approved last week).
Locally, expect moves to re-authorize the Proposition K sales tax. Expect general obligation bonds. Expect parcel taxes to be on the 2022 ballot, which, unlike bonding, can be applied toward operational budgets (expect polling for those in the coming days and weeks). And don’t be surprised if Muni searches for endowments for benevolent causes like free fares for youth. (Or, may I humbly suggest, for the cable cars. Rich people and corporations would like that, and you can direct the money you save toward benevolent causes.)
And, after all that, expect a disaster when, as noted above, that Central Subway opens.
It will run at an operating loss. It will syphon vehicles and workers away from core service. It will add to Muni’s maintenance backlog. By running it as an extension of the T-Third, the possibility exists for delays and backups along the entire, miles-long line. And, head-smackingly, the platforms on the tunnel were only built large enough to accommodate two-car trains. So, even if, in the far future, the abortive tunnel is extended to Fisherman’s Wharf, two-car trains won’t figure to be able to accommodate enough passengers: A train coming from, say, the Marina during heavy hours would be so full that it couldn’t take any riders by the time it hit Chinatown.
Muni runs slow. Not nearly fast enough to outrace its past. And as such, its future is uncertain.
Unless we fail to plan. Then we are certain to fail.